Connecting learning and employment transcript

I’m Bill Esmond, I’m an Associate Professor in Education and Employment at the University of Derby. I worked in industry for most of my adult life and have always been interested in the relationship between work and learning. My research focuses on post-16 education, here in England and internationally too.

During the last decade or so, governments in countries like the UK have sought to strengthen routes into paid work, like apprenticeships and the T Levels that were first taught in 2020. But there’s not been too much success in making this work for many young people. In fact, we’ve found a growing divide between opportunities enjoyed by the most advantaged students like young men on STEM based routes, and those whose skills aren’t valued in society, think of those essential workers during the lockdown.

We started with a study for the Gatsby Foundation looking at work placements for Level 3 students. We found that some students were getting specialist knowledge they could only access on these placements and this helped them get on to higher levels of study. But others were only receiving routine employment experience in poorly paid service sector roles, learning little that was valued elsewhere.

After that study I was asked to join a team evaluating a national trial by the Department for Education of T Level industry placements. But it became clear that our deeper purpose, concerned with genuinely educational opportunities wasn’t shared by everyone involved.

We spoke to teachers, students and people with workplace expertise about how they organised work-based learning, trying to make sense of why this differed so much between subjects or across industries. But it also forced us to completely rethink our understanding of how secondary and post-school education and transitions into work are organised, not only in England but internationally.

Our colleague Liz Atkins worked with Guernsey College to develop a different kind of curriculum for lower attaining young people, aimed at providing the opportunity for meaningful learning in the workplace. This project showed an increase in qualification achievements with more young people remaining in college and moving on to sustainable and secure employment, demonstrated by a decrease in those in who go on to be so called NEETs (Not In Education, Employment or Training). This work went beyond Guernsey to inform policy for Applied Qualifications at Curriculum Level 2 and below.

The achievements of our work have been broad in scope, including placement organisation, teacher training and education practice on the ground. But, the changes have not been as fundamental as they really should be, as Liz Atkins and I argue in our new book based on the research, Education, Skills and Social Justice in a Polarising World.

I’m currently looking at whether the creative subjects that seem to have been left on the sidelines of ‘technical education’ can provide insights that are being missed because of the way policy positions technology. I believe we can find many different ways to reconnect education and work whilst advancing social justice, but these are currently being drowned out by the noise around artificial intelligence and a so called fourth industrial revolution.

Our research aims to connect learning and employment in ways that enrich young people’s lives and those of adults at work and beyond.